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The What, When and How of Performance Improvement Plans

The What, When and How of Performance Improvement Plans

Do you have an employee whose performance isn’t meeting job expectations? What are you doing to solve the

performance improvementproblem? You have several options available:

  • Follow the organization’s disciplinary process:
    • Issue an oral warning
    • Issue a written warning
    • Terminate the employee if applicable based on his/her current status relative to your company’s disciplinary procedure
  • Implement a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)
  • Terminate employment At-Will

To make the most effective choice, it’s helpful to take two preparatory steps.

  1. Take a few minutes. Write down what you observed. Then, reflect on the situation, asking yourself questions such as “What have I observed? What have I done to ensure the employee understands what is expected? Am I certain the employee had access to information, resources and support needed? What could I have done differently? Did the employee understand the seriousness of not meeting this expectation? Has this issue occurred before with this person? If so, what were the specifics?” Make notes answering your reflective questions.
  1. Now, you’re ready to initiate discussion. It’s important to hold a fact-finding conversation with the employee, promptly. You’ll need a private office location, a time that is mutually effective, and an open, positive frame of mind with intentions to help (not a time when you’re annoyed, angry or pressed for time).   Your objective is to ensure you have all of the facts and information related to the shortfall in performance. Coupled with your reflections, a complete understanding of what happened, how and why is the best basis on which to choose the most effective corrective action.

What is a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)? It’s a structured, documented, time-bound approach including frequent, regular feedback, to support an employee in bringing his/her performance up to meet standards/expectations.

Lots of organizations use PIPs following an unsatisfactory performance review. But, this is the least effective time to implement a PIP; the chances of employee success are much greater when a PIP is put in place once unsatisfactory performance occurs more than once in one or more performance areas, rather than waiting until the end of an annual performance period.

Managers who are truly committed to enabling their people’s success act promptly and do not break trust by allowing an unsatisfactory performance review to occur without having first exhausted more proactive support measures. When a PIP is implemented following a bad performance review when months or a year of unsatisfactory performance in one or more areas has occurred, it’s likely to fail. By then the employee’s work relationships and work reputation have probably been impacted, and his/her future in the organization has been insidiously curtailed. Delaying corrective action is an indicator that the manager may have failed to stay in touch and to be aware of employee behavior and actions, or that, worse, the manager may be avoiding a difficult conversation.

A PIP is set up as a written agreement between the company and the employee. It includes examples of performance deficiencies, dates of any prior related discussions, and SMART goals for improvement. The duration of a PIP is best determined considering how long it will reasonably take for the employee to make the necessary change and to sustain the required improvement. Generally, this might be 30-90 days, with a caveat that the improvement to be sustained consistently into the future, beyond the life of the PIP.

A PIP is not the optimum tool to correct more concrete issues such as attendance and tardiness, which are effectively addressed using a company’s disciplinary procedure. In addition, when an issue has a low likelihood of correction, for example when an employee’s competencies are significantly misaligned with the job requirements, a performance improvement plan is not an appropriate solution.

A PIP provides a manager with an opportunity to help bring about a performance turn-around with an employee. It can be most effectively designed to address issues such as meeting deadlines, achieving goals and targets, work quality, and team behavior. In these types of situations, using a PIP can provide several benefits:

  • Fostering trust
  • Demonstrating intention of fairness and commitment to help the employee succeed
  • Providing a reasonable opportunity for an employee to succeed
  • Performance turn-arounds

If, after taking steps 1 and 2 (above) and assessing the nature of the problem you decide to utilize a PIP, following are the next steps:

  1. Write the Performance Improvement Plan using a standardized template approved by your Human Resources department.
    • Identify the performance areas in need of improvement
    • Provide examples
    • Identify dates of feedback discussions conducted with the employee by the manager
    • Set SMART goals to achieve the required improvement
    • Describe the resources available to assist the employee
    • Establish the starting and ending dates of the PIP
    • Include the requirement to achieve and sustain the improvement through and beyond the PIP period
    • Explain the consequences of failing to meet all PIP performance requirements
  1. Review the PIP with your immediate manager and with HR
  2. Discuss the PIP with the employee
  3. Schedule frequent, regular update meetings with the employee
    • Describe update information and data the employee will be expected to provide for each update and when it needs to be submitted to the manager. We recommend using a standard PIP Progress Update template.
    • Express your confidence in the employee to succeed
  4. Provide signed copies of the PIP to the employee and to Human Resources, keeping a working copy for your ongoing reference.

It’s critical that PIP update meetings are conducted on time, as scheduled. Complete the PIP Progress Update Template during each meeting, specifically describing performance results, action items taken by the employee and/or the manager, and evaluating the employee’s progress as of each meeting as being satisfactory or unsatisfactory.

A PIP process is intended to be clear and positive, and it is highly structured, to help the employee to make the required improvements in his/her job performance. Experience shows that managers who genuinely want to support their people in achieving success and who implement a PIP in this way have the best results.

Have you utilized a PIP successfully in the past? Please share your experiences and suggestions for making them a success, and the benefits you’ve achieved in the process.

Do you have an employee who is not performing, but don't have the time to figure out what to do? Download our "PIP Timesaver Kit" complete with editable templates.  


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Rosanna Nadeau is the Principal/Consultant with Prism Perspectives Group, LLC. Focusing on improving organization performance, PPG delivers results through uncommon tools and consulting approaches, as a partner with leaders from initial consultation through solution implementation and measurement. PPG provides employee and management development programs (see and H.R. Management services (see To receive the free monthly newsletter or obtain more information visit or send email to

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